In the era of Facebook Live and other on-demand video, it's perhaps no surprise that the largest celestial event in America this summer will be live-streamed. Students from Vanderbilt University will launch a high-altitude weather balloon — connected to a video camera — to send images of the total solar eclipse back to NASA on Aug. 21.
The team held its first test launch Tuesday, led by mechanical engineering grad student Adam Jarrell. On the empty top floor of a parking garage on Vanderbilt's campus, Jarrell held fast to a huge deflated balloon.
"Give me some air," he said, as another student started releasing helium from a nearby tank.
The balloon was attached to hot pink string, which was attached to a number of small payloads carrying the cameras, plus sensors to collect atmospheric data and a GPS. The students were constructing the whole apparatus for the first time.
"It's been a fun project. It's been a learning experience," Jarrell said. "And I'm going to be very glad when this balloon is up in the air."
Vanderbilt is one of a few dozen schools along the eclipse's path that are building these mobile cameras. They'll rise to 100,000 feet, at which point the weather balloon will burst and a parachute will bring the camera down.
This trial launch was an attempt to work out the bugs, said electrical engineering professor Tim Holman. "We're going to find out what works and what doesn't," he said.
There were small hiccups — for example, one of the spare helium tanks wasn't working — but the balloon finally filled up. Adam Jarrell released it and let each of the payloads rise with it. Then he checked a screen nearby showing the video feed that the device was sending back.
Success: It worked. "You see the sky and the clouds?" he said.
From the parking deck, students stared up at the floating mass, shielding their eyes from the sun — which the moon will be blocking for two minutes in August.